How to connect emotionally with your children and help them learn prosocial skills during Social Wellness Month! Family psychology writer Gina Stepp discusses the importance of forging and maintaining positive social bonds in children’s lives.
By Gina Stepp, www.mom-psych.com
As parents, we all want our children to lead happy and risk-free lives, right? But what makes the difference between kids who are at risk for mental-health or behavioral problems and those who will manage to hang on to their inner compass through life’s ups and downs?
There are several important skills or “competencies” children need for strong psychological health, but one of the most important of these has to do with their ability to forge and maintain positive social bonds.
This ability requires two almost inseparable characteristics. The first is the ability to regulate distress and negative emotions, which children begin to build from birth. The second is the later-developing ability to sense the emotions of others accurately and respond to them appropriately. We often call this trait “empathy”, and it is fundamental to finding common ground and resolving conflict in relationships.
As psychiatrist Bruce Perry and his coauthor Maia Szalavitz define in their 2010 book, Born for Love, “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there, and to care about making it better if it hurts.”
The Language of the Heart
This is an ability that we can’t exercise if we lack emotional literacy, which social entrepreneur Mary Gordon calls “the language of the heart.” The founder of an evidence-based and internationally-acclaimed program called “Roots of Empathy”, Gordon points out that children need help putting their emotions into words and learning to understand and cope with them while also expressing them in appropriate ways. Together with empathy, she says, emotional literacy forms the foundation of morally responsible behavior.
Parents, of course, take the lead in teaching children how to give voice to their emotions by actively talking about social and emotional issues in age-appropriate terms even before their children can talk. Just as parents point to household objects and give them names, they can point out “sad faces” or “happy faces” and name the emotions. According to researchers Joan E. Grusec and Amanda Sherman, “toddlers whose mothers try to explain emotions when talking to them and who direct them to label emotions are more likely to attempt to understand the emotional states of others, as well as to express concern for others.”
As children grow, they need regular guidance as they expand their social intelligence. Parents can help them learn to discriminate between intentional and accidental actions, cause-and-effect, and group dynamics as they play with other children.
Naturally, this guidance will sometimes take the form of correcting inappropriate behavior, but it’s important not to neglect an even more effective tool: positive reinforcement. As parents, we might be surprised by the power expressions of approval and gratitude can wield in motivating children. They want to please us, and when we acknowledge their success in reaching our standards, their sense of accomplishment is fed. This strengthens their belief in their ability to creatively solve problems, and their sense of being part of something larger than themselves—a key building block of social responsibility.
In fact, studies of young children as well as adolescents find that encouraging and specific praise for positive behaviors (“You were kind to that child, and I’m proud of you”), is strongly tied to internalizing prosocial values and behavior. On the other hand, very general sweeping judgments (“You are the best little boy in the whole world”), can actually be harmful to motivation.
Internalizing the Behavior
But children must also see themselves as having chosen to perform the positive behaviors, if praise and approval are to be effective. This doesn’t remove parents from the equation. Rather it challenges them to engage deeply enough to identify their child’s perspective so that they will recognize when it’s time to help them adjust their thinking and see circumstances through another person’s eyes. While children understand why and how others need to be helped and are motivated by empathy to provide that help, then praise and approval will have the effect that parents want: the behavior will be internalized.
Teaching children prosocial skills, then, involves much more than teaching a list of logical dos and don’ts having to do with behaviors. It involves training the brain’s emotional processes long before the logical processes are even engaged, which means the first job of parents is to connect emotionally to their children.
When parents are attuned to their children—when they are adept at reading their emotional state, understanding their cues, feeling with them and responding with concern—they can help them optimize their genetic capacity for empathy and resilience. And in doing so, they help set the stage for children’s lifelong success and social wellness.
Gina Savoia Stepp is a family psychology writer with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and a focus on trauma, resilience and attachment. The publisher of an online science magazine titled Mom Psych, she lives with her husband and three daughters in Southern California.